Image: Big Bang
GMTO via Ustream
Debris and colored smoke rise up from the "Big Bang" construction site for the Giant Magellan Telescope on Las Campanas Peak in Chile on Friday. Red, white and blue coloring agents were added to the explosives to reflect the colors on the flags of the nations involved in the project.
By managing editor
updated 3/23/2012 4:25:41 PM ET 2012-03-23T20:25:41

The birth of a giant new telescope began with a literal big bang on Friday: an excavation blast at the peak of a mountain in Chile, the observatory's future home.

The explosion detonated just before noon ET in order to level the mountaintop for the future Giant Magellan Telescope, an 82-foot (24.5-meter) observatory designed to scan the cosmos in unprecedented detail.  The blast was broadcast live on the Internet via the U.S. Embassy in Chile, and occurred a couple of minutes earlier than planned.

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"Well that's what we call a short fuse," one project official said with a laugh just after the explosion, which was timed for high noon and infused with celebratory colors. "It was in three colors. It had red, white and blue, which happen to be the colors of the countries involved in this: Chile, the U.S, Australia and Korea," the official said.

The early explosion left no time to mark the detonation with an anticipatory countdown, as previously planned.

The live webcast of the explosion — which project officials dubbed the "Big Bang Event" — drew an unexpectedly large crowd on the Web. Event organizers had to move the broadcast to a Ustream feed in order to handle the demand. Ustream's statistics indicated that the video stream was viewed more than 3,000 times.

The Giant Magellan Telescope is a $700 million project to build a ground-based telescope with 10 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope currently orbiting Earth. In all, 10 different universities and organizations are participating in the Giant Magellan Telescope project — named after the famed Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who led the first expedition to circumnavigate the world in 1522. [Gallery: Giant Magellan Telescope Envisioned]

The telescope is being built 8,500 feet (2,550 meters) above sea level, atop Las Campanas Peak in Chile's Atacama Desert, a region known for its dependably clear and dark night sky. Construction is expected to be completed by 2018.

"Today marks a historic step toward constructing an astronomical telescope larger than any in existence today," Wendy Freedman, chair of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization and director of the Carnegie Observatories, said in a statement. "Years of testing have shown that Las Campanas is one of the premier observatory sites in the world, and the Carnegie Institution is proud to host the GMT."

More than 70 controlled blasts will be conducted over the next few months to excavate the 3 million cubic feet of rock from Las Campanas Peak to make way for the telescope, officials said. The instrument is being built at the Las Campanas Observatory, which is managed by the Carnegie Institution for Science.

The telescope consists of an adaptive optics system of six circular mirrors surrounding a seventh central mirror. Each mirror segment is 28 feet (8.4 meters) across and weighs 20 tons, Carnegie officials said. They are designed to be adjusted quickly to eliminate the blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere.

Project scientists hope the telescope will shed new light on the birth of the first galaxies and the nature of dark matter and dark energy, among other astronomical mysteries.

Image: Giant Magellan Telescope
An artist's conception shows the Giant Magellan Telescope in operation, with a semitrailer-truck parked alongside for a size comparison.

One of the telescope's mirror segments is nearing completion, and work on a second mirror began in January, project officials said.

“2012 is a banner year for the GMT project as we complete the design process, develop the primary mirrors, and begin work on the site in Chile," said project director Patrick McCarthy of the Giant Magellan Telescope Organization.

The Giant Magellan Telescope is just one of several huge telescopes currently under development, and it is by no means the largest instrument planned.

The world's largest telescope will be the European Extremely Large Telescope, a 138-foot (42-meter) project led by the European Southern Observatory that will also be built in the Atacama Desert. Construction of that $1.43 billion telescope is also slated to begin this year. The Atacama Desert is home to several other astronomy observatories because it typically gets 300 days of clear night skies each year.

This report was supplemented by You can follow Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter@tariqjmalik. Follow for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter@Spacedotcomand onFacebook.

© 2013 All rights reserved. More from

Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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